Talking about supposedly true Bigfoot stories with John Portanova, I stop him

Talking about supposedly true Bigfoot stories with John Portanova, I stop him for a clarification: Does he mean true or “true”? “Oh no, I believe in Bigfoot,” insists Portanova, the 29-year-old writer/director of Valley of the Sasquatch. Making its third stop on the festival circuit at SIFF, the low-budget indie is the Burien-based Portanova’s first as director. He’s alsready been cranking ’em out at an impressive rate, one genre movie per year, working in different capacities for The October People, a production outfit he co-founded with partners Jeremy Berg and Matt Medisch. (Prior titles are 2013’s horror flick The Invoking and 2014’s sci-fi thriller The Device; this is the company’s first effort to reach SIFF.)

Shot in just 23 days last summer (in and around the Mountaineers’ Meany Lodge near Stampede Pass), replete with bickering characters and practical gore effects, Portanova’s horror film shows traces of 1968’s Night of the Living Dead in its bloodstream. “Definitely!” says Portanova during a recent Skype chat; he’s an avowed cult-film aficionado. “People in a cabin fighting off Bigfoot—as soon I heard the true story that inspired the spine of the script, I knew that this would be like Night of the Living Dead, except with Bigfoot instead of zombies or gang-bangers [as in Assault on Precinct 13].”

In the film, a father (Jason Vail) drags his reluctant son (Mils Joris-Peyrafitte) to live in and renovate their crappy cabin in the Northwest woods. Tension piles onto their already strained relationship when a couple of Dad’s buddies (David Saucedo and D’Angelo Midili) show up. Add alcohol and firearms. Then commence with the all-night Sasquatch siege! And, as Night of the Living Dead showed, the humans are every bit as much the problem as the monsters.

Portanova intends for VOTS to join the Bigfoot horror subgenre (part of the larger Bigfoot shelf at Scarecrow). “It’s funny,” he says, “most people, when they think Bigfoot movies, they think Harry and the Hendersons, and it ends there. But in reality there are hundreds of Bigfoot movies. There’s actually a book called The Bigfoot Filmography that is specifically about Bigfoot movies, several hundred pages long. And either they’re family movies like Harry and the Hendersons or they’re horror. So before writing the script, I just watched as many as I could and took what I didn’t like that those movies did, and did it differently in mine.”

The Poulsbo native says he’s been fascinated with Bigfoot since he was a kid, when he’d get freaked out watching Unsolved Mysteries and Sightings on TV. “I just always loved the idea that there was this monster out there,” he says. Inspiration for VOTS came from childhood hours spent in the library, reading about Bigfoot, alien abductions, and ghosts. “That stuff really fascinated me,” Portanova recalls “I would read those books instead of going out for recess.”

Preparation for filming those tales came years later as an adult, studying at Vancouver Film School. Today, Portanova works as an office manager at a media production company, along with running The October People. (His partners in that enterprise will join him, cast, and crew at the SIFF screenings.)

As for the “true” story behind VOTS—or true, according to Portanova—one of his characters describes it in the movie. In 1924, “There were some miners on Mt. St. Helens who ran afoul of some Sasquatch, and so in their cabin one night, rocks started raining down from the hilltop and the walls started shaking, so they had to kind of fight through the night.”

All right, then, if he’s serious: What about the infamous 1967 Patterson-Gimlin film, which purported to show a shaky glimpse of Bigfoot ambling through a forest clearing? Real or bullshit? “Real,” Portanova answers. No hesitation. “If it was fake, why would they give the Bigfoot boobs? It makes no sense. It’d be such a hard thing to construct at that time . . . looking as good as it does in the film. If they were going to fake it, it would have been a male Sasquatch.”

Boob point taken. He’s clearly given some thought to the matter—including what he’d do in a Bigfoot encounter: “I’d either be frozen in place, or I’d run away screaming.” So the lesson is, stay out of the goddamn forest? Portanova laughs. “Yeah, that’s true. If horror movies have taught us anything, it’s to never go anywhere and never do anything.”

SIFF Cinema Uptown 511 Queen Anne Ave. N., 324-9996, $11–$13. 8 p.m. Sun., May 24 & 4 p.m. Tues., May 26.

Read the rest of Seattle Weekly’s coverage of SIFF here.